My book was published this week, Net Effects: How Librarians Can Manage the Unintended Consequences of the Internet. Find out more about it at http://marylaine.com/book/index.html. Remember, if anybody wants an autographed copy, e-mail me and I'll tell you how you can get the message you want, inscribed on a paste-in-able slip of paper with my ExLibris caricature on it.
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RSS AND NEWS AGGREGATORS:
What Do You Really Need To Know To Keep Up?
By Steven J. Bell, Director of the Library, Paul J. Gutman Library, Philadelphia University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Unless you've been living under the proverbial rock, you've probably heard or read something recently about RSS and news aggregator software. Then again, if you've been neglecting your "keeping up" activities, maybe you haven't. RSS allows for the delivery of news from Web sites to an individual's computer via news aggregator software. [Editorial addition: The idea is that instead of clicking on one web site after another, which may or may not have been updated, you go only to your aggregator, which alerts you when the blogs and zines and websites you follow have added new material. mb]
I define keeping up as those combined activities that alert us to news and information about developments in the library profession and peripheral fields that allow us to keep our skill sets current. I elaborate on all of this in articles I've written on this topic, as well as on my Keeping Up Web Site, <http://staff.philau.edu/bells/keepup>.
Lately there's been considerable talk about RSS and news aggregator software as technologies for keeping up. As components of a sound, manageable strategy for keeping up I think these two leave much to be desired.
From my perspective, most librarians can keep up perfectly well without needing to delve into new technologies which they have little time to explore. My conversations with librarians indicate the majority is unable to devote adequate time, even 30 minutes a day, to keeping up. Between the demands of jobs, family, recreation and other activities, most say they manage little more than the occasional scan of a library journal. As you'd expect, librarians feel overwhelmed by the rapid professional change and their inability to keep up. So I'm far more concerned about getting librarians to take even two or three very basic steps towards developing a simple keeping up regimen that requires no learning curve and little personal effort or time.
RSS and news aggregator enthusiasts will emphasize that these technologies will save you time as they improve your access to news and information. But does the time required to obtain the necessary skills to use them payoff in the long run? I'm suspicious of anyone who claims something is easy and fast to learn and implement, but tells me I need to first read a four-page article that explains how it works. I exchanged e-mail with Marylaine about this, and she admitted feeling guilty about not having the time to develop some expertise with RSS and news aggregators.
Stop feeling guilty. I've experimented with both of them and while they're interesting technologies to explore, if you are a front-line practitioner in need of a modicum of news about professional and information industry developments, rest easy. I advocate taking advantage of e-newsletters, whether in traditional or blog form, that push news into your e-mail inbox. Any additional exertion needed to keep up will probably be just enough to keep librarians from bothering with it at all.
I almost always recommend Blake Carver's LISNews <http://www.lisnews.com/>, Gary Price's ResourceShelf <http://www.resourceshelf.com/>, and Peter Scott's Library Blog <http://xrefer.blogspot.com/> as three essential sources for staying abreast of both the necessary and the interesting stories needed for maintaining professional awareness and expertise.
Beyond that there are dozens of options for additional updates, both from within librarianship and beyond. Do you really need to keep up with batches of blogs, or with higher education news and developments, or legislative alerts out of Washington, or the latest web design technologies? That's all up to you, and that's what developing a keeping up strategy is all about. The least strategic move is to jump on a new technology bandwagon for fear of being left out of the loop.
Whatever path you choose, signing up for a few e-newsletters that won't require you to download, install or learn anything new seems like a far better strategy. As long as you're willing to allow someone else to filter the thousands of news items that could be of potential interest to a librarian into a manageable daily or weekly digest, that won't cost you a thing, will be regularly delivered to your inbox, and is summarized into headlines for fast scanning, you could be doing a vastly improved job of keeping up starting tomorrow. Not a bad deal if you ask me.
I'm sure the proponents of RSS and news aggregators, the same ones pushing this as a keeping up option at conferences or in articles and books, will consider my perspective as Luddite in nature. They may even claim I'm trying to protect my own "keeping up" turf or expertise from obsolescence.
I'm not resistant to these new technologies, nor am I opposed to having librarians know what they are or their capabilities. If you don't understand something, how you can make a personal judgment about whether you need it not? I encourage all librarians to discover what RSS and news aggregators are all about, but I doubt the typical librarian needs to invest the time required to learn how to implement these technologies just to keep up.
I share a common goal with the proponents of these new technologies: we all want to help our professional colleagues find efficient, painless ways to perform the onerous task of keeping up to date and well informed. We agree it's necessary if professionals are to maintain their competencies. Where we differ is on the means to the end.
It's easy to become enamored with a new technology, and to want to proselytize your colleagues into the fold. But the proponents of RSS and news aggregators are misguided in advocating them for keeping up. Keeping up should be based on a strategy. Individuals need to determine what they need to know, what resources will deliver that needed information, how much time they can commit, and what is the best way to get the right mix delivered with the least amount of effort. It's all about maintaining control over the information stream that flows to your desktop.
Nothing I've read or experienced while using RSS and news aggregators convinces me they are yet perfected enough to offer the fine-grain tuning that produces the control required for a true strategic approach to keeping up.
New information technologies make good topics for articles and workshops, and may even serve as breeding ground for tomorrow's guru. Our profession has a propensity to put new technologies on a pedestal, and hype them as the next great thing. Who doesn't want to discover the next "killer app"?
Let me save you some time here. Learn what you can about RSS and news aggregators, and then think through your personal strategy for keeping up. For a few of us, RSS and news aggregators may be viable options. I'm more concerned that far too few of us currently have any keeping up strategy at all. No one loves to dabble with new technologies more than I, but when it comes to keeping up I can't advocate something that will only further frustrate librarians and discourage them from taking the basic steps needed to develop their own strategy for personalized, professional development.
If you want to learn more about RSS and news aggregators, I'd suggest that you visit the following Web sites:
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Steven Bell is one of the people who has responded to my open invitation to write articles for ExLibris. If you have ideas about the profession that you'd like to put on the table for public discussion, I'd be happy to hear from you.
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But here’s the problem: things aren’t about what they’re about. "Aboutness" is also contextual and ambiguous. For example, if my blog entry on the JFK assassination links to the 1962 Sears catalog from which Oswald bought his rifle, the author of that catalog will not have labeled it as being about the JFK shooting. And if a scientist publishes a paper about a new polymer, she may in passing reject some closely related compound because it’s too sticky…but that may be exactly what you’re looking for. So, for you the article is about what the author tosses away in a footnote. Not to mention that in much of the best writing, about-ness is an emergent property. So, while the author’s intentions are an important clue, aboutness is ambiguous. Systems that too easily categorize and classify based upon a univocal idea of aboutness do violence to their topic.
David Weinberger. "The Unspoken of Groups." Comments at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, April 2003, http://www.hyperorg.com/misc/unspokengroups.html
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2003.
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